How to remember passwords
Part of our life hacks series. Yes, passwords are annoying, and remembering passwords can be hard. We’d rather not have to deal with them at all. Perhaps in a few years, passwords will cease to exist as biometrics (fingerprints, facial recognition, etc.) make further inroads. But for now, we’re stuck with them.
So I’m here to tell you how to quickly get a “reasonably strong” password that you have a chance of remembering.
A few password basics
- Longer passwords are generally more secure
- Passwords should not be reused for different accounts or sites
- Choose the longest passwords to protect the things you value the most
You can read more about password guidelines from NIST.
Method 1: Tim’s visual word chains
(If you know how to remember lists of words, skip this part.)
To start with, we need a crash-course in recalling short lists of words. We’ll do it by example. Here’s a list:
> onion cup producer tree jest ahoy
Now, memory associates things well through imagery. The wilder the image, the more it’ll stick. So for each word above, let’s associate it with the next, through some imagination. I encourage you to come up with your own imagery.
- onion → cup: I’m imagining a cup inside a cup inside a cup inside a cup (like the layers of an onion). A bit like the matryoshka dolls. I know it’s the start of the sentence, because it fills my entire imaginary “picture”.
- cup → producer: Inside the smallest cup, I’ve imagined a good friend of mine who’s a film producer. He’s sat in the middle of the cup.
- producer → tree: I’ve just imagined my producer friend with hair in the shape and size of a giant oak tree.
- tree → jest: Off the branches now appear the gold bells of a jester’s hat.
- jest → ahoy: My producer friend, now in full nautical attire, lifts up an old-fashioned sailing monocular, and shouts “ahoy”.
As you can see, the imagery is very specific to you. It takes a little practice, and if you get stuck on a word, you can always change it for another (at least, for generating passwords).
Choosing your words carefully
Now that you know how to remember a list of words, you need to select some words to use as the password. The important thing here is that the words should have no relevance to each other. Using whole sentences/lyrics/sayings/expressions, even with subtle modifications, still leads to passwords that are weaker against attack.
Be sure to use a good number of words. The more words, the stronger the password. There are a few ways to select your words:
- Use the Diceware method (involves using a dice… fun!). This is the preferred approach, but requires time to learn the method.
- Pick up a huge book, and randomly flick through the pages. Then randomly pick a word on the page. This is quick, and fun.
- [Alan:] Why not invent a couple of words of your own as part of the mix? This will make your password even more secure.
Now that you’ve got a list of random words, you’ve made yourself a pretty strong password. Enjoy!
Method 2: Alan’s sentence slicing
If you prefer to remember sentences rather than pictures, here’s another simple method you can use:
- Make up a sentence, the longer the better, and it doesn’t even have to make complete sense – you just need to remember it! If you wanted you could pick the lyrics of a song or the lines from a play, but your password should be stronger if you make up the sentence.
- Take the first letter of each word in your sentence to form your password. Alternatively, you could take the last letter of each word (or some other letter position).
So, for example, here’s a sentence I just made up:
When I was 10 years young, I used to have a small green dog called Janet.
Taking the first letter of each word, your password would then be:
You’ll see I’ve used the punctuation marks from the sentence too. I’ve also used both digits from the number 10, rather than using the first letter of ten. These things make the password a little harder to crack by increasing the range of possible character values. Perhaps more importantly, they also make the password slightly longer.
So now I have a password that’s quite long and hard to guess! But for me, it’s relatively easy to remember my original sentence. Anyone seen my green dog?
Whichever method you choose, we hope this article will help you come up with more memorable and secure passwords that keep you safer online.
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References NIST Advice Matryoshka Doll Diceware
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